ELIZABETH TOWNSHIP, Pa. ― Democrat Conor Lamb defeated Republican Rick Saccone in a special election for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, a GOP-held seat where Donald Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points.
Lamb’s projected win comes the day after polls closed, as initial counts were too close to call on Tuesday night. As of Wednesday evening, Lamb held a narrow 627-vote lead, according to both The New York Times and NBC. There are still 500 outstanding provisional, military and absentee ballots to be counted between the four counties in the district, but it appeared unlikely that the election results could change absent further unexpected developments.
Pennsylvania does not have an automatic recount in elections on the congressional-district level, but Saccone can still petition for one within five days of the counties completing their vote tabulations.
The win is a massive upset by Democrats reflecting the heightened enthusiasm of the party’s liberal base and the general dissatisfaction of many voters with the Trump presidency.
The party now has the wind at its back ahead of the midterm elections in November when Democrats hope to wrest control of Congress from the GOP.
“The congressional map for potentially competitive races has just gotten a whole hell of a lot bigger,” said Mike Mikus, a western Pennsylvania-based Democratic consultant. “If I’m the Republicans, I’m terrified. If I’m the Democrats, I’m very energized looking toward November.”
Republicans have downplayed the broader significance of the race, arguing that it could be explained almost entirely by Saccone’s flaws as a candidate, or more recently, Lamb’s alleged willingness to run a Republican-lite campaign.
But the election results show that the GOP needs to do more to appeal to moderate suburban voters, regardless of who the candidate is, said Mark Harris, a Pittsburgh-based Republican strategist.
“It’s not a good sign,” he said. “We have to run better campaigns that have messages that are going to resonate with voters regardless of their opinion of the president.”
Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District opened up in October when eight-term incumbent Republican Rep. Tim Murphy resigned under pressure. Murphy, who publicly opposed abortion rights, was caught encouraging a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair to get an abortion during a pregnancy scare.
Murphy enjoyed a virtually unshakable hold on the southwestern Pennsylvania district, running unopposed in the two previous elections.
The district, which was heavily gerrymandered in 2011 to favor Republicans, covers a vast swath of southwestern Pennsylvania. It reaches across four counties and includes the affluent, center-left suburbs of Pittsburgh in the north, the solidly Republican bedroom communities to the east, and the increasingly conservative coal towns by the West Virginia border.
But Democrats hoped that in a year marked by liberal fury with Trump, the right candidate could at least be competitive in a special election where turnout was bound to be lower than normal.
Lamb, 33, a square-jawed Marine veteran who resigned his assistant U.S. attorney post to run for office, fit the bill like a charm. In addition to his military service, Lamb’s devout Catholic faith and more conservative stances on guns, coal and fracking made him the kind of Democrat that blue-collar voters in the district’s union strongholds would at least be open to supporting.
Saccone, a 60-year-old state representative, political science professor and former Air Force counterintelligence officer, is a staunch Tea Party conservative famous for sponsoring a bill that would permit public schools to display the motto “In God We Trust.” After beating three Republican competitors for the party nomination at a closed convention in November ― including state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, a younger and more moderate up-and-comer ― Saccone made clear that his strategy would be to focus almost exclusively on turning out the right-wing GOP base. “I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” he declared.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s redrawing of the congressional district boundaries in February lowered the immediate stakes of the special election. The 18th District will only exist in its current form until the end of year. Lamb’s hometown of Mt. Lebanon has been moved into the new 17th District, enabling him to subsequently run again in November a place where Trump would have won by just 3 percentage points.
But given the symbolic power that a loss in such red territory would have, the official national GOP organs and aligned super PACs poured over $10.7 million into the district to help Saccone win.
Initially, those groups blasted Lamb for his opposition to the Republican tax cuts.
“Republicans have said the tax issue is gonna be what propels them to victory in November and Lamb showed Democrats how to combat that.”
But Lamb argued in a February debate that he had “always been for middle-class tax cuts,” he simply opposed the GOP legislation because the vast majority of the savings would accrue to the rich and corporations, all while adding $1.5 trillion to the national debt.
In apparent recognition that the tax cut line of attack was not working, Republicans began cycling ads about the issue off of the airwaves by the end of February.
“Republicans have said the tax issue is gonna be what propels them to victory in November and Lamb showed Democrats how to combat that,” Mikus said.
Republicans also struggled to pin Lamb as a liberal stooge for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) ― who is unpopular in the district ― despite featuring her in virtually every attack ad against Lamb.
Lamb neutralized the claim by promising in January that he would not vote for Pelosi as leader.
“My opponent wants you to believe that the biggest issue in this race is Nancy Pelosi,” Lamb said in a 30-second television ad. “It’s all a big lie.”
Distancing himself from Pelosi was one of several ways that Lamb ran as a moderate unafraid to be independent from the national party. When the federal government briefly shut down in January over a dispute about the status of undocumented immigrants, Lamb broke with Senate Democrats to oppose the impasse, insisting that his experience as a Marine would help him build bridges with his Republican colleagues.
Lamb occasionally faltered in his attempts to balance the priorities of his liberal base and the swing voters he needed to win. Following the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Lamb sparked progressive ire with what sounded like Republican talking points. He warned that the “emotions that a lot of us are feeling right now” were not a good reason to adopt new gun restrictions. He favors expanded background checks, but not an assault weapons ban and other more stringent measures.
At the same time, Lamb ran as a pro-union economic progressive, promising to protect Social Security and Medicare, shore up coal miners’ distressed pensions and defend collective bargaining rights. Lamb told the progressive Social Security Works PAC that he supported expanding Social Security and Medicare. And while he stopped short of endorsing single-payer health care, Lamb supports empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.
Lamb likewise stuck to his support for abortion rights, despite his personal view that life begins at conception and the district’s large Catholic community.
With a population that is 93 percent white, Pennsylvania’s 18th is not representative of the country, let alone the districts in which Democrats must generally compete.
But in the larger national debate over Democrats’ best routes to victory, Lamb’s win has a little something to offer multiple sides. Like most of the victorious Democratic candidates in recent elections in Virginia and Alabama, Lamb’s base of support is in the educated and affluent suburbs, a locus of Democratic activists and moderate Republicans disgusted with Trump. Yet he also won back some of the working-class voters in outlying counties who historically voted for Democrats, but turned out in droves for Trump in the 2016 election.
In the latter task, Lamb relied heavily on the region’s mighty labor unions, which claim nearly a quarter of the district’s voters as their members.
Although former Rep. Murphy had a strong working relationship with unions, backing enough of their priorities to elicit their periodic support, Saccone established himself as a major foe of organized labor while serving in the state capitol. He is a supporter of anti-union right-to-work laws and had not made clear whether he would join bipartisan legislation to shore up the troubled union mine workers’ pension fund.
Unions mobilized their voter education and turnout machine to inform members and retirees that Saccone was not the kind of Republican they should back. In conversations across the district, union members who voted for Trump and Murphy cited appeals from their unions as a reason why they planned to vote for Lamb.
“I can’t cut my own throat,” said Dwight Harris, a 40-year-old Republican coal miner who was voting for Lamb out of concern for his pension.
Recognizing that a loss for Saccone would reflect poorly on his political coattails, Trump held a packed rally for the Republican candidate at the Pittsburgh airport on Saturday night. In a speech that focused mostly on his own policy priorities, Trump made the case that he needed Saccone to enact his agenda.
“I need people who can help me and this guy can really help me,” he said.
But not enough Trump voters saw a vote for Lamb as a betrayal of Trump. Lamb’s lead grew in the final days after enthusiasm for Saccone dropped, according to a Republican official familiar with the polling data.
And while Saccone fashioned himself as a copy of Trump, he both lacked the president’s bombastic oratory and ideological flexibility on contentious right-wing social causes.
At a Monday rally at a VFW Hall with Donald Trump Jr., Saccone launched into an inflammatory rant against the political left, which he said has a “hatred for our country” and a “hatred for God.”
During a Lamb rally at the Greene County fairgrounds on Sunday deep in coal country, Lars Lange, a 64-year-old miner-turned-attorney, thought Lamb was the candidate in the race who most approximated Trump’s political knack for showering attention on economically neglected areas.
“He’s coming down to these areas where nobody thinks a Democrat is gonna get supporters and he’s getting all these big crowds,” Lange said. “That he might have taken from Trump’s playbook.”